I need some advice. The children in my preschool class are 3 and 4 years old. And all of them, except one, are doing just fine at figuring out when they have to go to the bathroom, getting there, taking care of themselves, and rejoining the group. But one child just can't seem to get it all together. Is there something I should know, something that would help me understand why he doesn't seem able to put the steps together or figure out what to do next, the way the other children can?

I think your preschooler is an example of a child who is having difficulties with sequencing, or the ability to put together a purposeful pattern of actions, behavior, ideas, or thoughts. When a child has to go to the bathroom, getting there actually involves a very complex sequencing pattern. The child has to get up, walk to the door, open the door, and then exit the door to get to the bathroom. When you think about it, it requires four different steps.

The easiest way to tell whether a child's sequencing ability is limited is to watch that child play with a toy. He may pick up the toy and simply bang it, which would be a two-step sequence. Pick up, bang; pick up, bang. A three- or four-step sequence would be the child exploring the toy and figuring out how it works by spinning one dial and pushing another. A child who completely figures out the toy might then go through a five- or six-step sequence.

Reacting to Sensations: Sequencing and Learning to Read

Sequencing is very important in learning to read. First, a child has to perceive a letter, then associate a sound with that particular letter, look at the next letter, and do the same. And after that, he must run those two letters together, such as in reading the word ma. So reading that two-letter word turns out to require a high-level, five-step sequence involving perceptual as well as motor activity. If a child is going to read a whole sentence, she has to move her eyes across the page, from one word to another, to another, to another.

More sequencing is needed for comprehension. Without sequencing, a child can get lost on the way to sounding out a word. Let's go back to the word ma. A child may start off by saying "mrnm," but before he gets to the a, he becomes distracted, looking out the window at a tree or getting an image of "mother" in his mind.

One of the reasons these children may find it hard to listen during read-alouds, for instance, is that they don't sequence well. If you can't sequence, you've got to remind yourself what to do next each step of the way.

Sequencing is only one piece of what's needed for literacy. Children need to develop language if they're to perceive shapes and then relate sounds to shapes. And putting all those skills together entails sequencing. General sequencing ability is needed for all academic learning, along with a range of experience.

How You Can Help

Observe how the child takes care of his needs and how he plays. Does he do one-step actions, or actions that entail two, three, four, or five steps with his toys? How does he communicate what he wants? How complex are his nonverbal problem-solving skills with toys and with getting his needs met?

Get a sense of where the child is. Divide kids into those who can do one- to two-step actions, those who can do two- to eight-step actions, and those who can do more. This last group is really quite interactive. Through their gestures and behavior, they show adults what they want, figure out how complex toys work, and use two or three toys interactively. Children who have many special needs are going to be in the first two categories, with a minimal capacity to sequence.

Extend sequencing abilities by finding learning opportunities. By creating challenges that require extra steps that the child is motivated to do, you begin to increase his ability to sequence. At the same time, carry on a verbal play-by-play about what's happening: "Oh, you're going to have to take my fingers away to get it!" I definitely recommend playing with the child to entice him to get a little more sequencing going.

Make up little treasure-hunt games in which you take something the child really loves and entice him to do a little planning to get it. Initially, you may put the desired toy in a box he can see through. Then gradually make it harder, adding more sequences.